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Debbie Sorkin: Systems Leadership for Systems Changers

May 24, 2017

Writing in conversation with Lankelly Chase, Debbie Sorkin, National Director of Systems Leadership at the Leadership Centre, speaks about ‘Systems Leadership for Systems Changers: how Systems Leadership can underpin real change’.

Lankelly Chase recently launched their Systems Changers Programme report From where I stand: how frontline workers can contribute to and create systems change. If you’re looking to make change in your own organisation or wider system, I’d recommend it. The report shows how frontline workers, across health, social care and other sectors, have been able to step in, and step up, to play a leading role in influencing systems and instigating change.

The report highlights the unique role and perspective that frontline workers can bring, not least in being able to work flexibly across systems and experiment with new ways of working. This is one of the common threads running through the report. Another – fundamental – thread was the way, working as systems leaders, they adopted systems leadership approaches.

Systems leadership is about how you lead across boundaries – for example, across health and housing. It’s how you lead when you’re not in charge, and you need to influence other people.

It describes the way you need to work when you face large, complex, difficult and seemingly intractable problems; where you need to juggle multiple uncertainties; where no one person or organisation can find or organise the solution on their own; where everyone is grappling with how to meet growing demand with less money; and where the way forward therefore lies in involving as many people’s energies, ideas, talents and expertise as possible.

So leadership isn’t vested in people simply because of their title or position. It’s possible – indeed, necessary – for leadership to be shared. So if you’re on the front line and you’re working in complex situations, systems leadership is a really useful tool to have in your armoury.

And we know it works. The Lankelly Chase Systems Changers have shown it. They connected the system to itself; brought people together to explore systems around complex disadvantage and identify the potential for change; used experiments to work towards progress; built networks and relationships; and championed and supported those around them. As a result, they shifted the way people thought; how they behaved; and what happened on the ground as a result.

Their experience tallies with the outcomes of a parallel national Systems Leadership programme, backed by the NHS, public health, local and national government, and social care, that’s been running for the past four years. The programme, now operating in some 60 places around the country, supports people in places where they are looking to change public services. Many of the projects have seen innovative ways of involving citizens, and frontline workers. You can read more about this work in a report, The Revolution will be Improvised .

How do you go about this? Well, we know some things that work:
o you can start small, and from where you are
o it’s about relationships and trust, not structures and hierarchies
o so you can be at the frontline and still be a systems leader
o work with a group of people who also want to get change – a ‘coalition of the willing’
o make connections, form networks and use conversations to build support
o experiment and look to make progress rather than solving an issue in one fell swoop

And above all, see yourselves as systems leaders, not as passive recipients of what other people want for you. There will always be setbacks. But it really is possible to be a frontline worker and to get significant change. The thing to do is to start – just give it a go and see where you get!

Lankelly Chase and their Systems Changers programme:
This article is one of a series contributing to conversations led by Lankelly Chase about the role of frontline workers supporting those experiencing complex and multiple disadvantage to change the systems they operate in. They are the ones who have day-to-day contact with people experiencing homelessness, abuse, mental health crisis, offending behaviour, addiction or a combination of these. Yet their perspectives rarely form part of developing the policies and services they deliver and their insights are rarely included in efforts to reform the multiple systems they work in. With this in mind Lankelly Chase has developed a Systems Changers leadership programme to support frontline workers and sharing insights through reports and articles.

@lankellychase #systemschangers

The full article is available here.